Itch!

Hi, folks!

So, today’s post is a little unusual, and I’ll explain why.

(Don’t let this distract you from the review; scroll down a bit to read about the book– it’s a good one– if you want to skip the blog blatherings…)

You see, I pride myself on only ever reviewing books I find and love on my own or with the help of friends. I gladly take recommendations from any and all sources, but I don’t accept payment or recompense in any form for my reviews. This little blog is just me and my books, and that’s it!

But, I sometimes am asked, what if an author, editor, or publisher approaches you? That sometimes happens, and I treat it like any other recommendation: sure, sometimes they send me the book, and then I read it. Then I treat it like any other book: if I don’t like it, I keep quiet. And then there’s all the degrees of stuff that have to happen before I write about it. I have a ton of great books I’ve never told you about, you know, because if I tried to tell you about every good book then I’d have no time for anything else. And I’m supposed to be writing a dissertation, too. So, perforce, my selections are somewhat arbitrary– but only somewhat.

If a book is good but I have nothing I think I can add, analytically, then I probably won’t write about it. If I love it but don’t have time, I won’t write about it. But often, if I love it and have something to say about it and have time to write about it (increasingly short supply these days)– and if I feel the COMPULSION to write about it– why, then I’ll tell you about it.

That hasn’t happened before with a book I’ve been sent by the author, though– until today. She’s an author I happen to really like, so I was already intrigued, and she sent me her book, and I loved it a lot, and think I have what to say about it– and it gave me an opening to explain to you up here a bit about my policy on being sent books! So, yay, here we go– and now you know.

In sum: Feel free to contact me about sending me a book, I’d love to see it, but be aware that I’ll treat it like any other recommendation I may get. Don’t take it personally, and if I don’t review it– don’t assume that I didn’t like it. I may well have liked it a lot! I just was busy, didn’t have time, or didn’t have anything I felt that I personally could add in my review.

But today’s book? I loved it, I really want to tell you about it, and, gloriously, I have half an hour to start writing a post right now, with another hour later in the day to probably finish it! HURRAH!

Our book? Itch! by Anita Sanchez, illustrated by Gilbert Ford.

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You probably remember Anita Sanchez from the blog before. As I said, she’s an author I like a lot, and you’ve seen me write about her book with Charlesbridge, Karl, Get Out of the Garden! several thousand times before.

Itch! does something I love: it shows me another side of an author I already enjoy. I read and re-read Karl!, so I know she can do biography beautifully. I know she can write an advanced picture book which speaks to many levels of children, too. But I did not know that Anita could write an informative, intriguing, delightfully tactile-seeming advanced picture book/MG book about everything that makes you itch. But now I do!

I’m going to admit up-front that if it hadn’t been coming from Anita Sanchez, whose prose I knew I liked, I may have skipped this book. I don’t like itchiness, I’m squicked out by lots of insects, and my daughter’s in kindergarten so I’ve had enough of lice for a lifetime– believe me! But this book goes to show that stepping out of your comfort zone can be an excellent thing: I didn’t want to be provoked to scratch my head as I read, but my hands were so busy turning the pages that I barely scratched at all.

(There, Anita, is a blurb for you: “Deborah Furchtgott writes: ‘My hands were so busy turning the pages that I barely scratched at all!'” People, you can be sure that they don’t send me books for the blurbs…)

While it’s an evocative book, and, yes, you may feel an uncomfortable tickle as you read about tarantula setae, I assure you that it’s worth it to learn about the triple-decker sandwich that goes to make our skin, and the anesthetic properties of mosquito saliva. Who knew, right? Apparently, Anita Sanchez.

A word about the illustrations: my primary anxiety in receiving this book was that the illustrations would revolt me. As I said above, I don’t love insects, and I’m not into being grossed out or made uncomfortable for the hell of it. I have a pretty low threshold for being irritated by by insect illustrations, but I also really don’t like “cartoony” science illustrations; I like them to represent reality. (You know I love Charlesbridge, and my love of accuracy probably comes from my healthy respect for their rigorously researched books.) Gilbert Ford hits this balance perfectly. On the one hand, the illustrations of insects are pretty darned cute. I actually smiled at the mosquito, and I’m a Maritimer, so that’s the first time in my life I can say that. On the other hand, the science diagrams, such as the skin sandwich I mentioned above, are clear, well-organized, and the relevant bits are not at all cartoony (the skin sandwich is posed beside a pickle, yes, but the skin itself is a good representation of what we’re looking for). There are no distractions from getting nice, accurate information– while at the same time the illustrations aren’t too gross, and are amusing to the eye. (If you’re looking for gross… you may see things differently. Other reviewers have praised it for its grossness. Flip through the book, your mileage may vary!)

To me, this was a real learning experience– not just to figure out exactly why it’s been so difficult to get and keep lice out of my daughter’s classroom (Kindergarten parents: Read this book!), but also to learn that I can still broaden my mind into areas I may have expected to make me uncomfortable. I think this is a great introduction to entomology, botany, natural history in general, and the more hands-on medical sciences, and will help both parents and children avert some anxieties about what insects are, how they behave, and why they behave as they do. I highly recommend it for kids aged about 7 or 8 and up. Amazon says 7-10. I personally think you could go a fair bit higher in that range– 12- to 14-year-olds would love it, too, I’m positive.

And this is why it’s great to hear from authors directly sometimes! I don’t know anyone who knows me who would have handed me this book, but clearly that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy it or learn from it. I had a wonderful time reading it, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with the Changeling when she grows older. Or maybe I’ll show her the section on lice now, so she understands what’s happening in her class! Knowledge, after all, is power.

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Wakestone Hall

Folks, a miracle occurred this Channukah– after some months of limited reading time I did, in fact, read a book I bought! (I say this quietly so that the other books teetering on my bedside table don’t get jealous.) OK, when you get a book mailed to you from Australia, you actually do feel an obligation to spend a little quality time with it. I was looking after a dog for a bit, so Claire and I hung out for a few hours while she snored and I read Wakestone Hall.

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So I am now in a position to tell you that Judith Rossell brings this series to a strong, courageous finish. I love you too much to tell you too much more about the ending– it is, as the title page proclaims, an “intrigue,” so it really would spoil things if I gave away the ending, but I want to tell you a bit about what to expect, and why it’s worth paying the shipping costs from Australia. (Well, apart from the fact that the shipping is incredibly efficient, the book is beautifully produced, and if you’ve read the first two volumes then you know you can trust Judith Rossell to deliver a fine story.)

First of all, let’s chat about characters. I love characters who grow and develop and unfold in unexpected ways. Judith Rossell does this, but she does so with care, never letting the development happen too violently or leaving you blinking your eyes and wondering where the hell that outburst came from. Stella is brave and resourceful– but we know that as of Withering-by-Sea, so watching her courage develop is not unanticipated; her skills, as they grow, are just that– skills being exercised– not wonky changes that leave us wondering where the original Stella went.

I’m harping on about this because I think it’s a very tenuous line, drawing a believable character who nevertheless grows and changes. Not that a character has to grow to be believable and readable, either. Consider Dickens: his caricatures are quite as fascinating as his more “realistic” characters. Uriah Heep, for example, is as memorable or more so than, for example, Emily, or even David himself. Well, Wakestone Hall abounds in delicious characters who are crystallized in their own literary form: wait until you meet the Garnets, or Miss Mangan! They are (alas) unredeemable, but you don’t want them to be; they are as they are.

Judith Rossell is skillful enough to handle both styles of character, and these characters interact in a world both familiar and strange, old-fashioned yet startlingly original, magical but eerily realistic. As the reader, you get to know the characters and the world, and the plot is simply a byproduct of what must necessarily occur as these characters move through their world. Stella is not a girl who would let a cat cry outside her window without seeking to comfort it. Ottilie may be small, but her courage is big– of course she would seek help when– enh, I won’t say more. You’ll find out.

What I hope I’m conveying here is the organic, natural evolution of Stella’s character and her story. Yes, this is genre fiction, not “realist” fiction (whatever that may be– a debate for another day), but it unfolds as realistically and logically as Dickens or Tolstoy. Or as any other great children’s book– The Incorrigibles or Penderwicks or Cassons, or many other novels. Why not? The rules of the Stella Montgomery universe are there, and the author obeys them; isn’t that exactly what an author should do, magic or not?

I’ll sum up (I’m writing briefly today both to keep myself from spoiling the plot and because I need to bike home!): Judith Rossell has written one of the most compelling and believable fantasy narratives I’ve read lately. And I’ve read many good ones– so many that I feel a Fantasy Post coming on. This trilogy is exceptional, well worth ordering the final installment from Australia. The characters will live with you, the world and its environment are eerie and just a little too close to our reality to be entirely comfortable, and the plot will keep you turning the pages. Read them all, in order, and really– this note is directed to my husband– DO NOT skip ahead!

And if you do read them, please tell me what you think! Happy reading.

Baby Book Guide

I have two things for you all today.

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First, a note on Help? Help!— remember that from a little over a week ago? Well, guess what arrived from Australia today? Yes, in less time than it’s taken letters from my Changeling to reach my parents in Canada, Wakestone Hall by Judith Rossell (a beautiful book, matte and jacketless with lovely texture, paper, and type) has reached me from Australia! Thank you, Boomerang Books, for saving me the cost of a ticket to Australia to pick it up myself! I am terribly excited to read it, which is awful because I won’t have time until next Shabbat.

 

Second, on Friday night we had a lovely couple over, very good friends of ours, and one of them said, and I paraphrase, “I have a lot of colleagues expecting babies, and I don’t know what books to get them.” I very nearly knocked over the table in my enthusiasm to respond. (Hey, sorry about that– I know I don’t shut up once you get me started on baby books…) He asked me to email him with links after Shabbat, and I was about to, when I realized that all those links might as well go here, too. So here’s a short list of some of my favourite baby presents, roughly arranged from young board books to more enduring hardcover picture books. Shall we begin?

Peek-A-Who

Peek-a-Who by Nina Laden is a cute little board book for young babies, or even for toddlers to share with baby siblings. It features surprising cut-outs from one page to the next, funny rhymes, bold colours, and surprisingly lovely and nuanced art. Check out those textured leaves on the cover and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.

 

Peek-a-booThe wonderful Ahlberg team, Janet and Allan, created this book, Peepo! in the UK, Peek-A-Boo! in the USA. Like Peek-a-Who? it’s aimed young, with lots of tiny surprises, repetition, and rhyme. Peek-A-Boo!, however, is geared towards realistic family time and the Ahlberg art is nothing short of phenomenal. Parents will be enthralled, and babies entertained. A perfect combo.

Each Peach Pear Plum Each Peach Pear Plum, also from the Ahlbergs, we’ve discussed before, so I link you to my post there. This is a touch “older” than the Peek-A-Who?/Peek-A-Boo! duo, and the fairy tale tie-ins are bound to make it of lasting interest both to the parent and the baby.

 

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Next up, from Charlesbridge, a lovely series called Baby Loves Science! written by Ruth Spiro and illustrated by Irene Chan. I have a lot of scientists and engineers, etc., in my life, and many of them have children. These meticulously researched and fact-checked board books are perfect for them. The series includes books on everything from quarks to green energy, and taught me what an algorithm is. I’m not making that up.

Here Babies There BabiesHere Babies, There Babies by Nancy Cohen and illustrated by Carmen Mok is still my go-to book especially for families expecting a second baby, since I think it’s perfect for explaining babyhood to toddlers and young kids. I love the art, the diversity, the realism, and the whole general feel of the book. And I particularly love that the rhythm and rhyme invite adding new verses with your kid!

Let’s move on from board books to a few great picture books, shall we?

Child's Garden of VersesA Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson is a classic, perfect expression of childhood and all of its nuances and beauty, from playing quietly while sick to journeying to the haunting Land of Nod while sleeping to digging holes in the sand at the seashore. This edition, from Chronicle Books, is as visually reassuring and lovely as the verses are. I still remember reading these with my mother, and I hope that the Changeling will always remember reading them with me. I have purchased many, many copies of this book for friends of mine, and I don’t expect that to change.

 

BlueBlue by Laura Vaccaro Seeger is a fairly new picture book, but I’ve already given it to several friends and am trying to figure out an excuse to own a copy of my own. It is extremely simple: just a few words accompanying lush illustrations. The bright, bold art will capture a small child’s imagination, while the limited text will be comprehensible at even a very young age.

Night TrainNight Train, Night Train by Robert Burleigh and Wendell Minor is another very new “young” picture book, perfect for that transition from baby to toddlerhood, or for bridging that gap. Like Blue, the text is limited and lyrical, and the beautiful art will entice both the children and the parents.

JamberryJamberry by Bruce Degen is yet another lyrical, rhyming book perfect for very young children. I recently heard from a family member with a new baby that she was loving reading it to her two-month-old baby, which makes total sense to me. The bouncing rhythm is just perfect for getting smiles out of that very young age, even before the baby can understand the funny text and illustrations, which will come before long, making this an enduring classic.

All right, that’s probably enough to start with, don’t you think? Let me know if you have other great ideas in the comments or by email!